Chardonnay

Putting Napa On The Map

16 May 2019

Napa doesn’t get a lot of coverage on Odd Bacchus. Its Chardonnays and Cabernets are the antithesis of “the unusual and obscure.” Napa is the wine powerhouse of the United States, and it’s as famous as any other wine region. I wonder if there’s a single steakhouse any place on the planet that doesn’t have at least one Napa Cabernet on its wine list (steakhouses in countries that ban alcohol excepted)? No, Napa’s wines are world-famous and very popular.

But it wasn’t always so. Indeed, very much within living memory, Napa was a vinous backwater. The name “Napa,” which nowadays connotes serious wines and serious luxury — there is no shortage of hotels in the valley that charge upwards of $1,000 a night — connoted little of anything to most people as recently as the early 1970s. France produced the world’s greatest wines, and that was that. Napa was small potatoes.

Then, in 1976, Steven Spurrier organized the famous (or infamous, if you’re French) “Judgment of Paris” tasting, as it’s now known. He gathered six Napa Chardonnays and four Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundies (also Chardonnay, of course), and had nine French wine critics and sommeliers blind-taste them. He did the same with several Napa Cabernets and top Bordeaux wines. The tasters were shocked, even outraged, to learn that their first choices of wines, both red and white, came from California.

The 2008 film dramatizing the event, “Bottle Shock,” ranks as one of my favorite wine-themed movies. Far better than “Sideways,” the popularity of which continues to mystify me.

In any case, although the French press refused to report on the event for quite some time, the tasting sent shock waves around the wine world and put Napa on the map. The winner of the Chardonnay tasting, Chateau Montelena, had Mike Grgich as its winemaker. His 1973 Chardonnay beat out some of the very best white Burgundies, a feat which still impresses me, considering how much I love white Burgundy.

Although many disputed the statistical validity of the tasting, it left no doubt that Napa could produce world-class wines, and Grgich bore no small amount of responsibility for that. He went on to found Grgich Hills Estate, in partnership with the Hills Brothers Coffee family, and he still has a hand in making its wines.

But most of the winemaking responsibility now belongs to his nephew, Ivo Jeremaz, who, like Grgich, was originally born in Croatia (the Grgich family has a second winery there, which makes excellent Pošip and Plavac Mali). Liz Barrett and I recently had the chance to interview Jeremaz on our web series, Name That Wine, and taste three of his bottlings. He farms his vineyards organically and strives for elegance in the bottle, not just power.

I sometimes poo-poo Napa Cabs and Chards, but I can’t deny that I loved these wines. I was also impressed by Jeremaz’s Zinfandel. Zins can often be ponderous jam bombs, but the Grgich Hills version managed to be ripe as well as light on its feet. I suppose it makes sense that Jeremaz produces a great Zinfandel; the grape originated in his home country. Making a graceful Zinfandel happens in the vineyard, I learned, and it’s fascinating to hear how he does it:

What a joy to taste these wines, and considering the balance and richness they deliver, they’re awfully good values for the money. Good value Cabernet and Chardonnay from Napa? Who would have guessed?

And as for the statistical validity of the tasting… Well, Francophiles kept trying to redo the tasting in the hopes of getting different results. Arguing that French wines age better than American wines, some wine critics repeated the tasting two years later, in 1978, holding the tasting in San Francisco. The three top Chardonnays and the three top Cabernets in this tasting were all American (the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay placed second this time, after a 1974 Chalone).

Lest you think that not enough time had elapsed for the French wines to show their age-worthiness, the French Culinary Institute held an anniversary tasting in 1986. They blind-tasted the same vintages of Cabernets and Bordeaux from the same wineries as in the original 1976 tasting. Napa Cabernets from Clos Du Val and Ridge earned the top two places.

But is 10 years really enough time? Perhaps, given a little longer, the results would be different? Spurrier organized a 30-year-anniversary tasting in 2006, opening up those same Cabernet and Bordeaux bottlings from the same 1970s vintages as before. This time, all five of the top ten slots were awarded to Napa Cabernets. Haut-Brion, for example, came in eighth!

That’s four separate tastings, and in all of them, Napa wines came in first. I’m no statistician, but I’m sensing a trend.

You can read about the tastings in more detail here.

I’ve written about Bordeaux and Burgundy on this site with some frequency. Perhaps it’s time I give Napa a little more of a shot. It certainly was a great pleasure to meet Ivo Jeremaz and taste his Grgich Hill wines, especially since they come with such a memorable story.

Now if only someone would offer to help with those $1,000-a-night hotels…

Note: The wines tasted in this episode of Name That Wine were provided free of charge.

Get Out Of Your Wine Rut

30 March 2019

Looking at the number of grape varieties about which I’ve written — I count some 146 — it seems almost unbelievable that I could find myself in a wine rut, but it happens even to me. It’s easy to pop into my favorite wine store, grab a couple of my standard bottles and scoot, without giving the new items on the shelf much thought. My current go-to wines may sound rather exotic — Félicette Grenache Blanc and Ivanović Prokupac, for example — but I’ve bought dozens and dozens of bottles of each. They’re not exotic to me, they’re just comfort wines.

There’s nothing wrong with comfort wines, of course, but I have a feeling that if you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in escaping whatever sort of wine rut you’re in and tasting something new. The problem, I realize, is that unless you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll have a hard time homing in on the wine that’s right for you. Let’s say you like light and bright Pinot Grigio, but you’re ready to try something else. Are you supposed to look at the list of 146 grape varieties on the right side of this page, and hope that the one you choose to read about will suit you? How would you guess that I would suggest trying, say, Verdicchio, which isn’t even on the list? There’s no way to get there from here.

In fact, most blogs aren’t set up to help people with that sort of dilemma. So on a recent episode of Name That Wine, Liz and I decided to address that problem. We talk about several popular grape varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, among others, and suggest alternatives that will likely give you the same satisfaction:

Now I just have to figure out what a good substitute for Prokupac is…

Walla Walla What?

7 October 2018

It was the morning of our Red Mountain AVA excursion, a pre-Wine Bloggers Conference tour of one of Washington’s hottest wine regions. Chomping at the bit to start exploring the delights of Washington wine, Liz Barrett, my cohost of Name That Wine, and I decided that a little breakfast tasting was in order.

Lu Lu Craft Bar + Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant overlooking the Columbia River in Richland, about an hour outside Walla Walla, challenged us to blind-taste two wines off their list of some 25 by-the-glass offerings, mostly from Washington. I must admit I’m not as familiar with Washington wine as I’d like to be — and I was certainly much less so when we filmed this, before the start of the conference.

Liz and I dove in nevertheless, discovering two surprising wines that got us really excited about delving deeper in to wines from Walla Walla and Washington in general. If you haven’t tried a Washington wine recently, it’s time to put one in your glass.

If you liked this video, do subscribe to our channel on YouTube, so that you don’t miss a single ridiculous episode of Name That Wine!

Franciacorta: A Lesson For The Rest Of Italy

27 September 2018

Like most European countries, Italy has a wine classification system that, in theory, gives the potential drinker a guarantee of quality. But Italians are stereotypically poor at organization, and so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the system doesn’t always work. Hence the rise of “Super Tuscans,” for example, that transcended their essentially worthless (at the time) regional regulations.

Italy has made headway in fixing lax wine rules, but it still has a ways to go. I mean, how many beautiful examples of  Barbera d’Asti have I had, classified as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and how many examples of boring Moscato d’Asti, classified in the ostensibly superior DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)? Yes, they’re completely different wines, but is there some way that Moscato d’Asti is superior to Barbera d’Asti? I don’t know it.

But at least one region of Italy is getting things right. Franciacorta “is an object lesson for the rest of the Italian wine industry,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The region’s still wines remain classed as DOC, and only the sparkling wines, the region’s true glory, have been elevated to DOCG. Other regions could “restrict production to the original classico area and a reduced yield,” Sotheby’s suggests. “This would result in both a DOC and a DOCG for the same region and… it would ensure that the ‘G’ did guarantee an elevated quality…” Sounds sensible to me.

Windy City Wine Guy Michael Bottigliero

Although the same cannot be said for all Italian wines, at least when you buy a bottle that says Franciacorta DOCG, you know you’re getting something of real quality. Franciacorta produces “Italy’s best metodo classico wine,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and I’m not one to disagree. Like Champagne, Franciacorta has exacting production requirements, and mostly like Champagne, it’s made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir (sorry, Pinot Meunier). Franciacorta is therefore consistently delicious.

But it’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bottle. A recent Franciacorta-focused dinner reminded me of how exciting the region’s sparklers can be.

The Windy City Wine Guy, Michael Bottigliero, invited me to attend a dinner at a fine Italian restaurant in Chicago called Nonnina, free of charge, in order to show off Franciacorta. We sampled — sampled? We drank four contrasting Franciacortas, and each was delightful in its own way.

The 2013 Ricci Curbastro Satèn Brut felt lean and wonderfully classy, like a slender Italian guy in a perfectly tailored suit. It certainly started the evening off on the right foot. “Satèn” indicates a Franciacorta that’s 100% Chardonnay, a Blanc de Blancs in Champagne terminology, aged on the lees for at least 24 months. Non-vintage Champagne, incidentally, need age only 12 months on the lees before its release, although many are aged much longer.

But the all-around favorite, as indicated by the room’s applause when Michael mentioned the wine’s name, was the Corte Bianca Extra Brut. “Zowie,” I wrote in my little book, taking my customarily thorough tasting notes. I don’t need notes to remember this wine, however. It had palpable richness in addition to lively lemony acids, along with a hint of white flowers. And there was that yeasty, bready note I covet in a sparkling wine. Zowie indeed. It worked wonderfully with some vegetable fritto misto as well as pizza topped with prosciutto and arugula.

I also deeply enjoyed the 2012 Monte Rossa Cabochon Vintage Brut, which smelled of Granny Smith apples and jasmine. Its zesty juiciness and minerality helped it stand up to some decadent bucatini alla carbonara. I could eat that carbonara and drink that Cabochon every day and be very happy.

We finished with a pale Mosnel Rosé, composed of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It had tight bubbles and plenty of strawberry fruit, but it was the juicy acids that leavened an otherwise bone-dry wine. With the salmon, it was an ideal match.

I’ve praised the virtues of Franciacorta before, here and here, but it never hurts to be reminded just how delicious Franciacorta can be. It’s not necessarily inexpensive, but if you want to celebrate something with someone you want to impress, Franciacorta is a great choice. Champagne is a delight but it’s predictable. Celebrating with Champagne is something of a cliché. But if you open up a bottle of Franciacorta, it shows you’ve got sophistication, as well as the confidence to stand behind something a little out of the ordinary.

I wouldn’t stake your reputation on any old random Italian DOCG, but with Franciacorta, you can feel sure that the “G” in “DOCG” is indeed a guarantee of quality.

Note: The dinner at Nonnina and the glasses of wine that accompanied it were provided free of charge.

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